Every year, weeks before Halloween, we take a half-day pilgrimage to the pumpkin patch. Our local pumpkin farm is so festive that we usually go twice each season - once as a family and again with friends. Years ago, I was even brave enough to chaperone a field trip with super-enthusiastic elementary school students who could not have been prouder of their pumpkins plucked right out of the patch.

Pumpkins are bright globes of cheer against the muted shades and foreboding weather of autumn. And kids from toddlers to teens never tire of annual visits to pumpkin farms. While some farms keep things as simple as a roadside patch and pay station, others go all out and create a full harvest festival with animals, rides, bakeries and shops. No matter how fancy the farm, a visit to the pumpkin patch is good for the soul. It's an opportunity to slow down and enjoy time in nature, take in the wide-open views and enjoy the crisp fall air in fields dotted with pumpkins in all shapes and sizes.

Visit a local pumpkin farm every harvest season so your kids can witness the transformation of seeds planted in late spring into fields overflowing with produce. Supporting locally owned farms feels great and helps connect your family with nature and each other. Here's how to make the most of each and every trip:

Plan Ahead. Check websites of local pumpkin farms in advance. Subscribe to farm newsletters to stay abreast of announcements. You cannot control the weather, but you can try to visit on discount days, if your farm has any. Expect the farm to get increasingly busy as Halloween draws near, and plan accordingly. If you must go on peak days, arrive early to beat crowds and get the best parking. If your local pumpkin farm has a loyalty program, be sure to sign up. Leave strollers, pets and food at home and bring plenty of cash to purchase delicious seasonal snacks like kettle corn, caramel apples and fresh doughnuts.

Bring friends. Spread your love of local farms by bringing friends to the pumpkin patch. What's great about going back year after year is that you get to watch your children become old enough to try things they've looked forward to doing, like braving the haunted hay maze or driving the pedal carts. You might leave some activities behind as the years go by, like the petting zoo or the kiddy playground, and that's okay. Just be sure to choose a farm that has age-appropriate activities for your kids and their guests. You can always visit more than one farm throughout the weeks-long harvest season.

Expect to get dirty. Don your blue jeans, flannels and rain jackets because you are going to the country! Expect rain and mud and you cannot go wrong. Hiking boots or rain boots are your best footwear for the farm. Portable umbrellas with hand straps are helpful if you have them. Or, if you will be out in the sun all day, you may need sunscreen for your face, neck and arms. Toss a few beach towels in a bag in case you need to wipe off afterwards or cover car seats. They can also protect your car from muddy pumpkins on the ride home.

Make a day of it. Purchasing a full-day, all-activity pass rather than individual tickets is usually the best value for your money. A petting zoo, a hay or corn maze, hayrides, face painting, food and entertainment are all possibilities. If your children are different ages, parents can split up to find age-appropriate activities and then meet up later for a bite to eat or to hit the pumpkin patch. Many working farms make a big chunk of their annual income during harvest season. So why not purchase some produce before you leave?

Grab photos. You are unlikely to find as many photo ops anywhere as you will find at the pumpkin patch. Try getting down low in the patch and shooting upwards. Also try standing on something and shooting downward. Take shots yourself or hand your camera to a friendly passerby to capture your happy group. You are after fun shots, not perfect shots. And don't forget candids. You can click three times per pose and edit out the duds later. If you know kids will tire out, get photos early on and then put the camera away and enjoy the day.

Take breaks. At some farms, you will find as many activities as an amusement park! Let kids get their ya-yas out on the playground before you expect them to wait patiently in lines. If the things you want to do are on opposite ends of the property, be prepared to build in some downtime, especially if you plan to stay all day. Grab your beach towels or bring a blanket, because you can usually find a shady spot under a tree where younger children can regroup with a nap or a little quiet time.

How to Pick A Pumpkin

Avoid harvesting pumpkins after a frost. Find out when the first frost of the season is predicted in the DMV and get your pumpkins at least two weeks prior.

Select pumpkins according to your needs. Is your pumpkin for cooking or for decoration? Cooking pumpkins are smaller and more solid than carving pumpkins.

Grab a wheelbarrow or a wagon if your farm provides them. This is no time for pride, which will evaporate once you get halfway out into the field.

If you have a wagon or wheelbarrow, pick any size pumpkins you like. But if each child has to carry his or her pumpkin, help them select a manageable size.

Choose a carving pumpkin that feels firm and heavy for its size when you pick it up.

Pumpkins do not continue to ripen after they are picked, so choose a pumpkin that is uniformly orange with a nice, thick stem and not at all green.

A green stem indicates a freshly harvested pumpkin. Stems can be fragile, so do not lift or carry pumpkins by them.

Avoid any pumpkins with soft spots, brown spots, holes, cracks, splits, wrinkles or mold. The pumpkin shell should be uniformly hard to the touch all the way around the pumpkin. Be sure to check the bottom and the side that was on the ground.

Round or oval-shaped pumpkins are easier to carve and are full of seeds you can scoop out and roast.

Put your pumpkins on a flat surface before you bring them home to make sure they will sit pretty without rolling over. Haul in a few extra pumpkins from the patch just in case you have some rejects.

Newer varieties of decorative pumpkins have a range of colors, shapes and warts. When unsure about quality, have a salesperson inspect your selections before you pay.

Carved pumpkins last about two weeks. Once pumpkins start to decay, chop them up and add them to your compost.

If you would like a volume of pumpkins to last until Thanksgiving, purchase less expensive pumpkins from your local grocery store right before Halloween, once they go on sale, and do not carve them.

Perfect Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

As everyone is carving pumpkins, offer a large bowl or pot for pumpkin pulp. When the bowl is half full, loosen the seeds with your hands and fill the pot to the three-quarters mark with water. The seeds will rise to the top. Squeeze them through your fingers to remove any clinging pulp as you transfer them to a colander to rinse again. Then spread them on paper towels and pat dry. Set your oven for 325 degrees and transfer seeds to cookie sheets in single layers. Sprinkle each pan of seeds with a tablespoon of olive oil and a few shakes of salt. Turn seeds with spatula every eight minutes until crispy on the outside and golden on the inside. Estimated roasting time is 20-30 minutes but do not let seeds turn brown. Remove roasted seeds from oven, cool and enjoy. Store leftovers in an airtight container at room temperature for up to two months.

IT'S THE GREAT PUMPKIN PATCH!


Related Articles

Fall Cooking With Blogger Kathryne Taylor
Fall Festivals


Author, journalist and writing coach Christina Katz cannot get enough of trips to the farm. Hot apple cider, warm doughnuts and caramel apples are her favorite fall treats.